Book Review: The Evergreen Tea House by David T.K. Wong

“The Evergreen Tea House” is a Hong Kong novel written by David T.K. Wong. It feels like a recollection of memories through a tumultuous period between the 1950s and the 1980s, with a multiple-perspective narration and intriguing characters. The book is namely set in Hong Kong, but the chapters also find themselves located in other countries like Taiwan and Peking (also known as Beijing as of present day). Though the book’s cover doesn’t seem like much, it actually highlights deep-rooted themes of politics, capitalism, traditions and culture. 

When I was reading the book, however, I grew to notice that this book wasn’t my cup of tea (pun intended). I found that the book was consistently monotonous with their mundane retellings of everyday life but at the same time, I believe that I wasn’t really the right kind of reader for the book. That is, I felt that the book had several layers that were meant to be analysed critically and I couldn’t achieve that. It was possible that I didn’t read between the lines. I couldn’t bring myself to appreciate it as much as I wanted to because I didn’t really get it. Nevertheless, I still have some thoughts about the book. 

I want to acknowledge that Wong’s narration is wonderful, yet powerful. His chapters were brimming with intricate details, and the book truly feels like you’re listening to your grandparents’ retell the story of their lives. That is, you’re looking into a window of the past. “The Evergreen Tea House” reminded me of those vintage-style Chinese movies I used to watch on TV, and truly, the book feels nostalgic in many ways. I also like how the book was paced, slow and gradual like a cup of tea. Compared to the last book I read (Crazy Rich Asians), this one was just right. It wasn’t too overwhelming nor was it too stagnant. 

As I’ve said before, the book is characterised by multiple perspectives. From what I’ve read, each chapter slowly introduces a couple of new characters, and we get to see how they’ll settle into the story. While this offered a lot of insight into how people of different backgrounds lived and perceived a gruelling time, I felt that the author should’ve stuck with 5 main perspectives. I would’ve loved to read more of the lives of Fei-Fei, Sebastian Baxingdale and Lucille Mong-Chu. Xavier Chu Wing-Seng and Cheng Ching were interesting as well, as I got to see how they grew up. Otherwise, I thought that the perspectives were well-balanced between these 5 characters. 

One of the things I value with historical fiction is historical accuracy. I liked how Wong infused this into writing along with a chronological timeline, and he made me (the reader) feel like I was there, being transported into the past. The book does involve actual historical events like the Korean War, the Cultural Revolution in China and the Japanese occupation. 

Back when I was in high school, I actually studied the history of Chinese communism, which talked about Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. But I liked how the book gave me an Asian perspective of the event, unlike the Western point of view of the textbook. It was refreshing, and it made me realise that I didn’t know much about Asian history myself. Since the book was set in the midst of wars, it felt like I was in the eye of the hurricane. 

This leads me to my next point. In my eyes, the book was a war-torn novel. It’s not sugar coated, and it can get heart-wrenching at times. In the beginning, we follow Cheng Ching as he goes to war in Korea. Before him, his father went to war, and like the rest of the country, he had suffered the repercussions of it. The book talks about this as well, emphasising the presence of life and death. This is prominent in scenes that mention the sudden extremities of violence in any mundane setting, such as a bombing or a war casualty. 

There are also many commentaries about communism, capitalism and politics as well, which I found realistic because the book seems to mirror our current reality. Though they are infused into the everyday dialogue between the characters, I’m somehow reminded of what’s been happening today, like the riots in Hong Kong, and the political unrest in some countries. 

On another note, I noticed how the book also reflected upon culture, traditions and ideologies. With the introduction of characters from the East and the West, I get to see the underlying clashes in their cultures. This was also due to the fact that the novel was set during a time where the Western ideas were creeping into traditional Asian ways, and I could observe how some of the characters thought about it. While reading, I could sense some form of disdain or reluctance in the characters when it comes to accepting the Western ways into their lives. 

When Wong first introduced Lucille as a character, I recognised her as the tie between these two cultures. As an American-Chinese, she was constantly tied between the two, often struggling to identify herself with either culture. However, compared to Xavier and his family, she very much felt like an outsider with her American upbringing. 

She reminded me so much of me because I’ve grown pretty detached from my Chinese heritage, and at the same time, I’ve been tied between my roots in Indonesia and my separate upbringing in Malaysia. I could relate to her sense of cultural identity crisis, as well as her attempts to learn more about Chinese culture. 

There was also much about the Chinese culture I personally identified myself with, like saving face and reputation upon one’s name, and the idea of following in your parents’ footsteps. In fact, the character Xavier represented another clash in culture, especially with the age gap. The elders represented conservatism and Chinese traditions, while the youth stood for progress and new ideas of the West. After coming back from America, it was apparent that he didn’t really have a care for much of the Chinese traditions in Hong Kong, or confusion even. This was foreshadowed when he defied his father’s wishes to pursue business as his career path. Xavier was a symbol of change. At the same time, he represented the youth as we grow more distant towards the traditions our parents and grandparents tried so hard to preserve. 

The Evergreen Tea House is a location of significance in the book and a chapter title. While I was reading it, I was genuinely perplexed by why the book would be named after a tea house – until the ending that is. Connecting to my previous point of culture and traditions, I believe the tea house is a symbol of legacies and the act of passing it on or preserving it. The tea house is especially important to Xavier’s father Chu Tung-po, a household name that was carried forward by his son. At the same time, the tea is a symbol of the importance of Chinese culture, and the bitter flavours of a brewing history streaked with war. 

If you’re interested to get the book you can get it here:

Written by Natasha Effendy

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